Unearthing and Preserving Heritage Resources in Saskatchewan

Cannorth_Preserving Heritage

With eight staff members in full- and part-time capacities, CanNorth’s heritage division boasts the largest heritage department in the province with the most permit holders based out of Saskatchewan. Indeed, CanNorth’s industrious archaeologists are making an impact within the company itself and within the broader archaeological community.

Each of the eight archaeologists specializes in a unique area of research, and CanNorth’s heritage department retains professionals in Precontact period archaeology of Northern Saskatchewan, Precontact period archaeology in Southern Saskatchewan, Historic period archaeology in Saskatchewan, Historic period archaeology (with a focus on Stanley Mission) in Northern Saskatchewan, Fur-trade period archaeology, archaeological analysis, WWII karst cave archaeology in Micronesia, and dendrochronology, the scientific method of dating trees, in the Northwest Territories.

The CanNorth heritage division has held approximately 250 provincial (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) and federal (Parks Canada) permits since its inception in 2011, and the preservation and protection of cultural and heritage resources in Saskatchewan remains the highest priority for these archaeologists when conducting heritage assessments for developments in this province. CanNorth’s heritage department has successfully completed heritage assessments throughout Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. Past and present clients include First Nations, environmental companies, oil and gas sector companies, forestry sector companies, mining sector companies, engineering companies, Crown companies, urban and rural municipalities, and subdivisions.

CanNorth archaeologists have undertaken many interesting projects in the past nine years, but three projects in particular stand out for their uniqueness and heritage interest: an excavation for a major oil and gas pipeline on the South Saskatchewan River; the Chief Mistawasis Bridge work near Wanuskewin that unearthed oversized bison skulls; and the Traffic Bridge work near downtown Saskatoon that uncovered a number of artifacts from the S.S. City of Medicine Hat.

The archaeology of the excavation along the South Saskatchewan River in the summer/fall of 2015 turned up over 4,000 artifacts, and although most of the artifacts were quite modest, CanNorth archaeologists gained interesting historical information from these findings. This project involved a large excavation of approximately 100 square meters to a depth of approximately 1.5 m. The goal of the excavation was to collect interpretive scientific data regarding the site through controlled excavation and then to document heritage resources and their context. The site was meticulously excavated using shovels, pointing trowels, and brushes, and the excavated soils were screened through a quarter-inch mesh screen. CanNorth archaeologists interpreted that the site consisted of a Late Precontact period campsite (from approximately 2,000 to 170 years ago) where pottery was used (actual finger prints of the craftsperson were discovered on the pottery itself). The South Saskatchewan River, which paralleled the excavation site, was a source of an important toolstone found near the site (e.g., silicified peat and petrified wood). Archaeologists suspect that at least one of the important activities at this site was the procurement of this stone.

The Chief Mistawasis Bridge work near Wanuskewin in 2016 included the discovery of skulls of an extinct species of bison that measured roughly 33% larger than modern bison. The bison species is either bison antiquus or bison occidentalis, as the skulls show characteristic features of each species. One theory is that the skulls represent the evolutionary transition between the two species. Another hypothesis is that the skulls actually represent a uniquely Saskatchewan/Saskatoonian population that was genetically different from other populations of extinct bison, as the skulls were larger than those expected to be found in bison occidentalis (in the range of bison antiquus) but the spread of the horn core (tip to tip) resembles the species bison occidentalis. If the skulls are bison antiquus, which is how the province’s paleontologists are interpreting the findings, they are over 10,000 years old; if they are bison occidentalis, they date between 11,000 to 5,000 years old. At any rate, the skulls represent an extinct form of bison that roamed in what is now Saskatchewan a very long time ago. The skulls can be found on display in the T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, Saskatchewan. Although archaeologists did not find any evidence that the bison unearthed near the Chief Mistawasis Bridge were killed by local First Nations, there is a nearby site in the North Park/Richmond Heights community in Saskatoon that suggests that people represented by the Clovis archaeological culture (dated to 11,300 to 10,900 years ago) were around to hunt these very big bison.

The Traffic Bridge work in downtown Saskatoon in the spring/summer of 2016 included the discovery of a number of artifacts from the S.S. City of Medicine Hat, detailed below. The tale of the wreck of the S.S. City of Medicine Hat belongs to Saskatchewan mythology. The S.S. City of Medicine Hat was a luxury steam-powered sternwheeler, which is a craft powered by a single rear paddle. Built by Scottish-born entrepreneur Captain Hamilton Horatio Ross from 1906 to 1907, the vessel measured 130 feet and was a true luxury craft. In the summer of 1908, Ross invited friends and family on a pleasure cruise on the sternwheeler that would follow the South Saskatchewan River from Medicine Hat, Alberta, to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The trip was a success until the party reached Saskatoon, which was experiencing particularly high runoff caused possibly by large quantities of meltwater from the Rocky Mountains. While most of the party was spending time in the city, Ross and one assistant tried to navigate the craft beneath the Traffic Bridge, and although Captain Ross had removed the steam pipes in an effort to clear the bridge, the vessel’s rudder actually became entangled on some cables invisible beneath the water. Captain Ross could not control the entangled vessel, and it hit the pier of the bridge and wrecked the craft. It should be noted that Captain Ross enjoyed entertaining and that the crew of the S.S. City of Medicine Hat were drinking heavily the night before.

Senior CanNorth archaeologists suggest that the “effects of alcohol, i.e., being hung-over or potentially still impaired, may have contributed to this serious error in judgement made by Captain Ross and the Crew of the of the S.S. City of Medicine Hat”. While there were no causalities in the event, the ship was abandoned. The wreck was still visible above the water mark in 1913 and then in an ever-growing sand bar long after that. Ultimately, the City of Saskatoon decided to cover the area with fill in 1960, creating Rotary Park. The Traffic Bridge closed in 2010 for reconstruction, and archaeological work was required during the summer of 2016 as a legislative requirement.

Some of the more notable artifacts recovered from the craft during CanNorth’s work in 2016 included a pistol and rifle cartridges, shotgun shells, and a diamond tipped glass cutter. Parts from an old outboard motor were also recovered still lubricated, which suggests that the outboard motor was intact prior to being damaged during the reconstruction of the Traffic Bridge. A small key was also recovered that CanNorth archaeologists theorize might belong to an upright music box that was salvaged immediately from the wreckage and which can be found in the Esplanade Arts and Heritage Centre in Medicine Hat. Perhaps one of the most interesting artifacts recovered was a ceramic plate bearing a maker’s mark. By researching the history and origin of the mark, CanNorth archaeologists determined that the ceramic plate belonged to the only ceramics collection in existence to bear that mark, which shows that the wares were commissioned specifically for Captain Ross’ navigational fleet—of which the S.S. City of Medicine Hat was a part. The ceramic fragment represented the smoking gun, as it were, proving that it originated from and belonged to the wrecked ship.

Through these interesting projects and many others, CanNorth archaeologists are ensuring that Saskatchewan’s rich and diverse archaeological resources are preserved for generations to come.